Timofey Agarin

Consociational power-sharing established with the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland primarily has aimed at changing the nature of conflict from popular-level intergroup violence in the streets to formal contestation in the corridors of political power. The defining feature of a consociational government is power-sharing in the executive, but it is only the major groups, de facto those who were involved in violence, who received guaranteed representation in government. These are de facto owners of the state, a trade-off given to them in order to guarantee continued peace. Though mass intergroup violence has been stopped, only few of the other expectations aired during the referendum on GFA have been met two decades later: intergroup cooperation among the political elites in the provincial assembly tethers from one crisis to another, Northern Ireland society shows levels of intolerance of all ‘others’ at levels incomparable with any other region in the UK, and group based micro-violence, prejudice and intolerance are unique in the European context. 

Surely, visitors to Belfast and NI will observe the genuine progress made by the Northern Ireland society over the past 20 years, both in developing infrastructure and normalising interpersonal relations in the everyday. Likewise, scholars highlight that out-group prejudice is stereotyping but rarely leads to violence between the two major communities. True this may be, the intolerance in the Province is expressed occasionally and affects not only those from the ‘other’ community, i.e. Protestants or Catholics. It also has a knock-on effect on both these groups’ view of politically less significant ‘others’: People whose identities do not map neatly upon the major ethno-political cleavage of Catholic/Protestant are known to experience prejudice on the day-to-day basis: indigenous Jewish community is rendered invisible in the public eye; British Asians, British Muslims and generally British of colour are rarely perceived to be ‘people from here’ by any Catholic or Protestant; citizens from the EU are widely seen as ‘temporary workers’ regardless of their length of residence. This is despite the fact that the first China-born person to be elected to any European legislature until this date, the first and only politician born in East Asia elected to any legislative body in the United Kingdom, is indeed the Northern Ireland’s Legislative Assembly Member, Anna Lo elected in 2007.  

The father of consociational theory, Arend Lijphart maintained that ‘power sharing is a necessary (although not a sufficient) condition for democracy in deeply divided countries’ (1996, 43). Thus, it is unsurprising that as the end of violence has been sealed with the establishment of political institutions they have been seen as a safeguard from return to violence. But much of the negotiated settlement has been limited to elite levels: Catholic and Protestant Northern Ireland citizens still send their children largely to community specific schools, continue to live in segregated neighbourhood and outcomes of voting in these are highly predictable by their ethnic composition.

Looking at Northern Ireland society it is easy to see that it is par excellence what scholars in conflict studies refer to as ‘deeply divided’. Here social, class, religious, and other binary divisions map neatly onto what is in fact an ethnic difference of Catholics versus Protestant, and are upheld by the political arrangement put into place in 1998. It is easy to see how politically salient identities of Catholics and Protestants are maintained for 20 years after the conflict. But this also has an added value as socially relevant categories for all individuals navigating social landscapes in the Province: The cultural distinctness of either of the Northern Ireland communities is hard to ascertain for any outsider, but it is palpable for anyone from the Province. The contrived limits of social interactions are said to have an immediate impact on work-place relationships in Northern Ireland with individuals approaching their colleagues with a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ attitude about their identity, past and attitudes to contemporary politics. As long as members of all communities have skills-based access to opportunities on the labour market and can participate in electoral politics, access government services, and keep to themselves otherwise there seems to be no pressing need to discuss contentious issues distinguishing and alas, dividing communities. The GFA has allowed a modicum of cultural autonomy to each of the two groups, to set-up and run government funded schools that adhere to their cultural creed contributing towards the stability of the state of Northern Ireland. 

Yet one of the central characteristic of consociational arrangement in Northern Ireland, de facto ‘minority veto’ known in the Assembly as a Petition of Concern (POC) acts as a final check to protect interests that a group may see as essential. In Northern Ireland it has been repeatedly used to highjack the institutional change that is widely deemed to be in line with the UK legal standards (e.g. abortion legislation), EU equality agenda (e.g. legislation on equal marriage) as well as popular attitudes of the electorate. The trump card of POC has been designed to give those whose vital cultural concerns could be marginalised the necessary confidence to interfere with law-making of consociational government. Instead, some MLA have used it to maintain their electorates privileged access to and reserve guaranteed political control over voicing the opinions by, access to and participation of all other groups who do not align with the main Catholic/Protestant divide. For society trying to move beyond a conflict, this had meant little else than excluding all those not previously involved in violence from seating at the negotiating table 20 years after the GFA.

In this sense GFA has marked the end of protracted conflict over political representation marring one of the key Western European states. By forcing the political elites representing  the formerly conflicting ethnic communities to make concessions and assume joint responsibility for domestic peace the GFA has created peace and opened an opportunity for peacebuilding. By bringing former foes out from the cold and seating them at the high table of Provincial politics the GFA ushered peace and avoiding further loss of human lives. However, it merely included the mechanism to stop violence by vesting domestic conflict parties with the expectations of participation political process. It did not explicitly promise democratisation of state society relations, did not aspire to a more inclusive society or put into place guarantees for raising the levels of intergroup tolerance. 


Timofey Agarin is a Lecturer in Politics and Ethnic Conflict at Queen’s University Belfast.